The White Helmets came to prominence in 2012 for their work rescuing those trapped in rubble after air raids by Syrian government and Russian warplanes [File: Reuters]
Hundreds of White Helmets rescuers and their families have been evacuated from Syria to Jordan overnight with the help of Israel, the United States and European countries.
Also known as Syrian Civil Defence, the White Helmets operate in rebel-held parts of war-ravaged Syria.
The request for the evacuation came as the volunteers and their relatives were threatened by advancing forces of the Syrian government in the south of the country.
The evacuees were transported on Sunday to Jordan, from where they are expected to be resettled in Europe and Canada in the coming weeks.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on Twitter that 422 people were evacuated, instead of the initial 800 cleared for the operation.
A non-Jordanian source familiar with the agreement told Reuters the original plan had been to evacuate 800 people, but only 422 made it out as operations were hampered by government checkpoints and the expansion of Islamic State in the area.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker reporting from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights said, “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying that he has been contacted by the American President, the Canadian Prime Minister and others to facilitate the movement of the White Helmets and their families across the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and into Jordan.”
“It was a massive multinational and international effort with the United Nations involved to get this underway,” she added.
The Israeli military earlier said it had “recently completed a humanitarian effort to rescue members of the Syrian civil organisation and their families” after a “request of the United States and additional European countries”.
It also also tweeted that the “civilians were subsequently transferred to a neighbouring country”.
Canadian officials told public broadcaster CBC that they “agreed” to accept 50 White Helmets volunteers and their families, which could mean up to 250 people.
In a similar move, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was quoted by German weekly magazine Bild as saying that 50 of the evacuees would be granted asylum by Berlin.
Raed al-Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defence, confirmed to Al Jazeera that some of its volunteers were evacuated.
“A number of volunteers were evacuated to their families for purely humanitarian reasons,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They were trapped in a dangerous area,” he added.
But while some of the White Helmets were allowed to cross into Jordan, tens of thousands of displaced Syrians remain along the border, which “the Syrian government is now firmly in control of most of it,” said Dekker.
“The only pocket that remains that is under opposition control, is controlled by a group that is affiliated with ISIL. There is no deal on the table with them,” she added explaining that deals reached with other groups saw the evacuation of rebels to northern parts Syria.
“We’ve been seeing throughout the day, quite an active air campaign. We expect this to be the government’s final push to take back all of southern Syria,” said Dekker.
Advancements in south
The White Helmets came to prominence in 2012 for their work rescuing those trapped in rubble after air raids by Syrian government and Russian fighter jets.
According to their website, the White Helmets have been directly funded by Mayday Rescue, a UK-based company, and Chemonics, a US government contractor that also works in Rwanda, Honduras and the Maldives, specialising in international development and management.
On Saturday, Canada said it was working with the UK and Germany to “ensure the safety of the White Helmets and their families”.
Syrian forces, backed by a Russian air campaign, have been pushing into the edges of Quneitra province following a relentless aerial bombardment campaign last month that routed rebels in adjoining Deraa province.
Last week, a deal was reached between the opposition in Quneitra and Russian negotiators acting on behalf of the Syrian government. It provides for the safe passage of residents who do not wish to live under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Thousands of rebels and their families had started to arrive in the rebel-controlled northwest on Saturday.
Pro-government forces have recaptured 90 percent of the territory in the south through similar surrender deals with the opposition whereby the latter agrees to also hand over medium to heavy weaponry.